Owner Chris Elford is back behind the bar at Navy Strength, though instead of filling tiki glasses with crushed ice and chatting up customers, he’s portioning mint leaves into tiny packets, and falernum and lime juice into plastic bags. He assembles his handiwork in brown paper shopping bags lined up atop the bar.
The Belltown tiki bar is one of a growing list of local restaurants and watering holes assembling cocktail kits to help take the edge off as an anxious population sits at home and frantically scrolls news reports on all things COVID-19. On the heels of the statewide ban on in-person dining, Washington temporarily relaxed its liquor sales laws as a lifeline of sorts. For the duration of Governor Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order, bars and restaurants can sell sealed bottles of spirits for takeout and delivery, as long as the customer also buys food. However, to convince customers to shell out for an entire bottle of gin or rum or whiskey, it’s not enough to bundle it up with a lemon and some club soda and call it good.
“We got organized pretty quickly,” says Elford. Especially because Navy Strength’s mix of classic and original tiki drinks are well suited for customers to recreate at home: They use a range of interesting ingredients, but the actual assembly is relatively simple. “You’re not shaking egg whites or anything like that.”
Now, on Fridays and Saturdays, Navy Strength sells 10-serving batches of DIY tropical drinks—like Zombies, Navy Grog, or Saturns—with or without booze. Trial and error yielded a few lessons: Not everyone has a jigger, or even ice. Instructions are way detailed, but also kinda witty.
Sales started off strong and have more than tripled since Navy Strength debuted the kits March 27. “We’re reaching a lot of people we weren’t reaching before, for whatever reason,” says Elford, like people who live in the neighborhood. His staff is also available to answer customers’ questions on topics like how to crush ice at home. “It's the closest thing we've had to normal guest interactions in three weeks,” he wrote in a Facebook post about the kits. “And it feels awesome.”
Navy Strength’s sibling bar Rob Roy is readying a set of kits that impart fundamental drinkmaking skills along with whiskey buck recipes. On Capitol Hill, Tamari Bar dispenses highball kits along with hand rolls and bento boxes, while Nue preps batches of smoked palomas, old fashioneds, and other drinks that run the geographic gamut with calamansi juice or Vietnamese coffee. Canlis's "Bottle Service" cocktail kits, naturally, come with live flower garnishes. Eater Seattle has a list of places around town batching up margarita kits and bloody mary mix.
The model doesn't work for everyone. I'm not sure I need that level of guidance to assemble, say, a gin and tonic, and Elford pointed out drinks like Seattle's classic Last Word that require multiple spirits would be awfully hard to pull off as a full-bottle kit. But consider this a boozy tool in bars and restaurants' very real fight to stay in existence. While plenty of places are doing gangbusters sales on takeout, it's hard to stay solvent on low food margins alone.
"We would be scraping if that law had not gone into effect," says Sara Rosales, co-owner and bar manager at Lady Jaye. When the smoked meat and brown liquor spot in West Seattle began its two-person takeout dinners, customers started asking for to-go cocktails to go with their osso bucco or prime rib. The Washington Liquor Control Board has been pretty adamant that individual cocktail takeout won't be a thing, so Rosales devised a kit version of the house old fashioned, smoking the demerara syrup instead of the whiskey. She dug into her basement stash of glass bottles to package the syrup, cherries, and bitters. Buy one of Lady Jaye's Old Fashioned ($60) or Manhattan ($80) setups and you can choose between a few different bottles of whiskey. The bar sells anywhere from five to a dozen kits a day, and each makes about 12-15 drinks, a testament to how people are spending their time in quarantine.
It would take one hell of a kit to replace the hospitable feeling of sitting before a talented barkeep. But the ritual of ice and precise measurement (and that final careful garnish) does seem particularly welcome right now. Though perhaps not as welcome as the ability to turn bottles on bar shelves into funds in bank accounts. As Chris Elford puts its, "It's appropriate to call this liquidating."